tick tock

What the heck is the Colorado school accountability clock? (And 14 other questions you might ask.)

On Thursday, Colorado’s accountability clock chimes for a dozen schools and five school districts that have failed to show enough academic improvement on state tests during the last seven years.

That means time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.

Before the State Board of Education begins this work at its Thursday meeting, we’ve rounded up some questions — and answers — about how we got here and how this all works:

What is the state’s accountability clock?

“The clock” is the colloquial term lawmakers, state education department officials and some school leaders use to describe the state’s school accountability law. In 2009, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 163, an update to Colorado’s original accountability law. The law defines how the state measures the quality of schools and school districts, reports it to the public and intervenes if they don’t improve fast enough.

How is school quality measured?

Student performance on state standardized tests in math and English is by far the biggest factor in the ratings.

The state calculates how much students learn year-over-year compared to students at the same starting point. This “growth data” makes up the lion’s share of the report. How many students are meeting the state’s expectations on subject matter — in other words, whether students are at grade level — is a lesser factor.

High schools and school districts also are evaluated on a school’s composite score on college entrance exams juniors take, and how many students graduate or drop out.

Schools can earn one of four ratings. Going from the highest to lowest, they are: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. School districts can earn one of five ratings: distinction, performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

What happens if my school or school district earns one of the two lowest ratings?

Nothing off the bat. But if a school or school district consistently earns one of the two lowest ratings for five years, the state is required to step in.

If schools and districts only have five years to improve, why has the state waited seven years to take action on these first schools?

The timeline is muddled for two reasons.

First, the law built in a sort of buffer year after the fifth strike that allows schools and the state time to plan corrective actions. Second, because the state changed the tests measuring student achievement, lawmakers in 2015 called a one-year time-out.

So how is the state going to step in?

The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.

For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:

  • Close it.
  • Hand it over to a charter management organization.
  • Contract with a third party to help run the school.
  • Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.

For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:

  • Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).
  • Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
  • Apply for innovation status district-wide.

There’s also an “other” option for school districts?

That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.

What is innovation status, and an innovation plan?

Innovation schools were created by lawmakers in 2008. When schools or districts apply for innovation status, they’re required to create a plan that does two things. First, they must request a series of waivers from local policy or state law they believe are blocking them from boosting student achievement. Second, they must detail the policies they want to put in place.

Schools often seek flexibility over hiring and firing practices, curriculum and the school district calendar (usually, longer school years or longer days).

Some members of the state board have raised numerous concerns about struggling schools seeking more autonomy through innovation. This is something worth watching as the board considers its options.

Can the state just take over schools like they do in Tennessee or New Jersey?

No. Colorado’s constitutional local control provisions prohibit the state from taking direct control of a school. The local school board still has the ultimate control over schools, even if they haven’t improved in five years.

The state does, however, have some leverage on school districts: accreditation.

What’s accreditation?

Accreditation is basically a seal of approval that signals to the community the school district is meeting all of the state’s expectations and is paying its bills on time. (Seriously, if a school district isn’t fiscally sound, the state can yank its accreditation. But that’s a different story.)

What if the local school board doesn’t agree with the state board’s direction?

This is where the law starts to get really murky.

If a school district with one of the three highest ratings has a school on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can lower the district’s rating to one of the lowest.

If a school district is on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can revoke its accreditation.

What happens if a district loses accreditation?

No one really knows. It’s never happened in Colorado before.

Several years ago, the department suggested that losing accreditation would put students’ high school diplomas in jeopardy. It also suggested the state could withhold federal funding. (It can’t withhold state funding.)

But the department has backed off that stance. Now, the department considers the stigma of accreditation loss as enough of a punishment.

What’s going to happen during the next couple of months?

Between now and June, the state board will meet with each school and district twice.

The first meeting will be a quasi-judicial hearing. The department will present their suggestions on what the schools should do, and the schools will have a chance to define their own destiny.

Then a month later, the board will make its ruling on changes the districts and schools should make.

Under state law, this all has to be done by June 30.

What happens after June 30?

The law is silent on how the department is supposed to monitor the schools’ and districts’ progress.

However, department officials and the state board are working under the interpretation that schools and districts are to continue receiving annual quality reviews. If a district or school makes enough progress to earn a higher rating, the clock is reset for them. If the district or school continues to struggle, the state could require additional changes.

Are school districts really going to go along with this?

Early evidence suggests yes. However, the state education department has requested extra money from the state legislature to pay for increased legal services if rumored threats of lawsuits from some school districts become reality.

Is there any evidence this will work?

State intervention is a hotly debated topic across the country. And like many things in education, the results are mixed.

One study in Tennessee found that the struggling Shelby County School District was doing a better job of improving schools under their control compared to those in the district managed by the state.

However, Massachusetts has had some success.

Both of these states had more authority than Colorado, so it’s not a direct comparison.

preliminary

Adams 14 falls short in its upward climb. Now the state could step in.

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district will likely face more state intervention, after the struggling district failed to meet its goals to raise achievement in various areas, including state tests.

Preliminary state ratings released by the Colorado Department of Education Monday morning showed some bright spots in the district’s performance, but overall, it was not enough to add up to a better rating in the state’s five-tier system.

Despite that, district officials spent the day celebrating at three schools that earned the state’s highest rating. Out of the district’s 11 schools, three is the most the district has ever had in the top tier.

“Everyone should be proud of the progress being made at these schools, which is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our students, families and staff,” read a statement from Superintendent Javier Abrego. “While it is important to celebrate these successes, we must also take ownership of the unacceptable and insufficient growth and pace of improvement across the district. Adams 14 will work alongside the state to determine the best outcome for students, staff and families.”

Districts can appeal before the state finalizes the preliminary ratings. Adams 14 officials said they will file appeals for at least three school ratings. If successful, the state could also change the district’s rating.

The 7,500-student district north of Denver has suffered instability and low performance for years. Current Superintendent Javier Abrego joined the district in 2016, making bold promises that he would help the district improve within two years — and telling the community they should hold him to it.

Colorado Department of Education

Monday, Abrego said he has kept his word, but said he will look to reach the goal of having no schools in the bottom two categories of ratings by 2019.

“We’re happy with the progress,” Abrego said. “It’s never been done here. We’ve never had this kind of success.”

In the changes the state had already required, the district was to work with an outside partner to improve curriculum and teacher training. The district was also to create a better monitoring system for its schools so it could respond faster when things aren’t going well in a school. Some of those changes were slow to roll out.

State test scores released two weeks ago had given district officials an indication that the ratings wouldn’t be what they were hoping for, and officials had said at that time that they were starting to prepare for another hearing with the state.

The process will be new. State officials Monday said they don’t have the process mapped out yet, but will seek State Board of Education feedback next month.

In spring 2017, Colorado held its first hearings under new laws to come up with plans to improve schools and districts that had more than five successive years of low performance. For each one, the state set different timeframes and deadlines for improvement. Of the districts that had state hearings, Adams 14 is the first district to fail to sufficiently improve by its deadline.

The state now may take further action, which can include actions as drastic as ordering schools to be closed or merging a district with a higher-performing one.

State officials said Monday that the State Board of Education could choose to let the district continue rolling out its plans, make changes to those plans, or the state could direct some other intervention.

Besides the district, Adams City High School, which was under a separate state intervention plan, but with the same timeframe, will also have to face the state again. Although the school improved from the lowest rating to “priority improvement,” it failed to meet state goals.

Two schools on state plans in Pueblo 60 — Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy — also have preliminary ratings that would require them to have another state hearing this year so officials can review the plans.

Adams 14 faces an additional problem, with another of its schools that has reached its limit of low ratings. Central Elementary has a preliminary state rating of “priority improvement,” which if finalized, will mean it will be placed under a state improvement plan.

Central Elementary is one of the schools that was working with Beyond Textbooks, the partner that Adams 14 paid to work with low-performing schools as part of its state-ordered improvement plan.

out of the woods

With test scores nudging up, Westminster escapes state’s watchlist

Superintendent Pam Swanson and the Westminster school board celebrate their state ratings. (Photo courtesy of Westminster Public Schools)

Westminster Public Schools has improved enough to escape from the state’s crosshairs as a low-performing district, to the relief of school officials.

According to preliminary state ratings released Monday, the district has earned an “improvement” rating, or the middle rating on the state’s five-tier system for districts.

The district has been working under a state-ordered plan to raise student achievement and this year continued to post gradual but steady improvement in student growth across state test scores.

Colorado Department of Education

The district had just one more year to show that the plan was working, or else could have faced further state intervention. With the improvement this year, the district will no longer be under the state plan or timeline or face the threat of state action that could include closing schools or asking the district to merge with a higher-performing one.

But Westminster officials said their improvement plan will still be rolled out, because it was what the district intended to do anyway.

“Regardless, that’s Westminster’s plan,” Superintendent Pamela Swanson said Monday afternoon. “I believe we are going to continue to see progress. We have to double down to keep that up.”

When the district was facing state intervention for the first time, Westminster officials argued that the state’s rating system was unfair because of the district’s demographics and its education model.

For almost a decade, Westminster schools have been using a competency-based model where students aren’t placed in a class based on their age and corresponding grade level. Instead, students are grouped by their understanding of a certain subject, and can progress to another level as soon as they show that they’ve mastered that class content. The switch to the model caught national media attention when it was first announced. Despite its struggles, Westminster has steadfastly stood by its model, an innovation among public schools.

District officials say their improvement now is proof the model works.

“For many years we have asked the Colorado Department of Education to provide more flexibility in its accountability system to support innovation instead of focusing on high-stakes, once-a-year testing,” Swanson said in a press release. “The state resisted, but we pushed forward with our model and have now shown success, even by the traditional state standards. It’s very gratifying.”

One of the components of that plan was to work with education researcher Robert Marzano to create a school in the district to be used as a lab for teachers to develop their skills in using the competency-based model. The district closed the former Flynn Elementary School and reopened it this month as the Marzano School.

School-by-school ratings clearly show Westminster’s improvement.

This year only one school, Westminster High, fell into the bottom two tiers. The high school, however, did not start rolling out the district’s education model at the same time as the rest of the district, and when it did, did so one grade level at a time, district officials said.

Westminster had more schools in the top category than it had before — nine, more than twice as many as last year.

Besides its unique educational model, Westminster board President Ryan McCoy also credited increased student and parental engagement for the district’s improvement.

“Students have to own their work as well,” McCoy said.

But officials said that’s all part of getting better, or “going deeper” in using the competency-based model.